International Women’s Day: women’s rights in Africa!

On International Women’s Day, I review ‘Women’s rights in Africa’ a report produced by the UN and African Union ahead of the 2017 International Women’s Day. Here’s a selection of some of the key findings:


As of 2017, female participation in African legislatures outpaced many in developed countries. Rwanda (at 63.8%) was ranked number one in the world, with Senegal and South Africa in the top 10. Fifteen African countries ranked ahead of France and the United Kingdom, 24 ranked ahead of the United States, and 42 ranked ahead of Japan.

Africa has the lowest proportion of women in prison though in 15 years the number of women imprisoned on the continent has grown by 22%.

Women are more economically active in Africa particularly as farmers, workers and entrepreneurs than anywhere else in the world. They perform the majority of agricultural activities, and in some countries, make up some 70 per cent of employees.

As of 2013, more than 24 countries on the continent had enacted legislation against FGM. On 28 December 2015, the Gambia, a country with one of the highest prevalence rate of female genital mutilation criminalized the practice.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), eighteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa, had reduced maternal death rates from about 999 to about 500 deaths per 100 000 live births in 2015, of which the majority of the deaths were among adolescents.

Health funding had risen—between 2001 to 2011 health budgets in African Union Member States increased from 9% to 11% of public expenditures. Six countries (Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Rwanda, Togo and Zambia) achieved the target of allocating 15% of public expenditure to health, and a number of other countries (e.g. Djibouti, Ethiopia, Lesotho and Swaziland) were within reach of the 15% target.


Women still bore a disproportionate burden of poverty. They continued to be engaged in informal low-paying labour, unpaid care work, and faced discriminatory land ownership and inheritance rights.

According to the World Health Organization, developing regions accounted for approximately 99% of all maternal deaths. In 2015, roughly 66% of all maternal deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

The proportion of births taking place during adolescence in Sub-Saharan Africa was over 50%, and a link could be made to a lack of access to accurate information on sexuality to prevent pregnancy and STIs

In a number of countries, pregnant women had been asked to sign consent forms for sterilization procedures in situations of duress, such as during labour and while in severe pain.

More than 1 in 3 women (36.6%) in Africa report having experienced physical, and/or sexual partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partners.

On the continent, in six countries there was no legal protection for women against domestic violence, these were Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Lesotho, Mali and Niger.

Of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world, nine were in Africa. If current trends continued, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 would be African.

Looking ahead

Despite the above findings (all from 2017), Africa continues to take strides in advancing the interests of women. According to a Pew Research Centre survey of 2015, about 50% of those surveyed from African countries said equal rights for women were important. In 2017 Pew Research also reported that ‘in Zimbabwe, Malawi, the Gambia, Liberia and Tanzania, women account for at least 50% of the workforce. And in all of the sub-Saharan countries with data available, at least 40% of the labor force is female.’

Other positive signs include this blog’s recent report of the court rulings in Zimbabwe and Tanzania banning early child marriage and discrimination against girls. Even more recently, the High Court in Lesotho found that women who had been dismissed from the country’s military after falling pregnant had been unfairly dismissed and should be reinstated. The court also struck down a standing order which prohibited women of under 5 years’ service from falling pregnant.

Also worth noting are the remarkable achievements of former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who not only oversaw a peaceful handover of power in Liberia but also won the $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership on top of her Nobel Peace Prize won in 2011. Her achievements are in marked contrast to those of male African leaders who often struggle to handover power peacefully! African countries are therefore making strides in advancing women’s rights despite the many challenges they face. But the greatest credit, of course, must go to African women themselves who are relentlessly fighting for their rights and setting trends.

Happy International Women’s Day to all women in Africa and beyond!

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